When William Russo learned that some of the newly arrived asylum seekers being housed in tents on the grounds of Floyd Bennet Field, a former military airstrip in Brooklyn, New York’s Jamaica Bay, were asking passersby for warm clothing and boots, he knew he needed to do something to assist them.
“Seeing desperate people going through recycling bins to collect bottles and cans for the 5-cent deposit and begging for winter clothing changed my heart,” he told Truthout.
Russo quickly became involved in a weekly effort by a host of mutual aid groups — Fight Back Bay Ridge and Floyd Bennett Neighborhood Support, among them — to distribute clothing, diapers, shoes, backpacks, suitcases, boots, toys and sanitary supplies to the hundreds of refugee families living on the field.
But in addition to this humanitarian effort, many of the volunteers are also pushing to change government policies. Among their most pressing concerns is a rule, promulgated by New York City Mayor Eric Adams this fall, to boot single asylum seekers from temporary housing after 30 days and families after 60 days. Evictions began on January 9. Advocates are also opposing other rules impacting those being bused into the city (from Texas and elsewhere) that have been put into place by a mayoral executive order to regulate where people can be dropped off and when.
By all accounts, the logistical situation facing both NYC and the nation is dire, with more than 10,000 asylum seekers a day crossing into the United States from the southern border in December alone, the highest number in 23 years.
Most did not stay in Texas. In fact, during the final week of December, 14 buses filled with migrants came into NYC, sent by the Lone Star State’s Governor, Greg Abbott. Abbott began busing asylum seekers to so-called sanctuary cities — Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. — in April 2022.
Abbott has made no attempt to hide his desire to keep asylum seekers out of Texas and is making the state as inhospitable to them as possible. His effort has come with a hefty price tag: According to Axios, between the spring of 2022 and November 2023, Texas spent $86.1 million to bus asylum seekers out of state, an average of $1,650 per person; one company, Wynne Transportation, collected more than $75 million between August 2022 and August 2023.
It’s not just bus companies that are cashing in. ROW NYC, one of New York City’s largest hotels, was in foreclosure before the city bailed out owner Highgate Holdings, agreeing to fill every one of the building’s 1,331 rooms for the foreseeable future. Similarly, a Holiday Inn in the Financial District was teetering toward bankruptcy before the city rescued it, guaranteeing owner Jubao Xie $190 a night for each room in the 492-room building. This turnaround, Bloomberg News reports, is expected to net Xie a profit of $10.5 million.
“Everything boils down to economics,” said Daniel Lesser, president and CEO of hotel industry group LW Hospitality Advisors, to a group of business insiders. “It’s every single night at 100 percent occupancy.”
He then zeroed-in on the once-posh Roosevelt Hotel, a more than 1,000-room building on East 45th Street between Madison and Vanderbilt Avenues as an example of the bounty that is available to hoteliers. The building, he told his audience, was shuttered during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic but has since been transformed from one with no income to one with a city contract that has totaled $136.7 million since 2022 — thanks to the influx of migrants.
What’s more, in addition to providing shelter, the Roosevelt is now serving as an information hub and is where families need to come to reapply for a new housing placement if and when they receive an eviction notice. Even before the evictions, it was a busy place, with uniformed guards allowing people in a few at a time.
“I am so tired,” Maria, an immigrant from Honduras who said she was afraid to disclose her surname for fear of retaliation, told Truthout. “I am waiting here to find out how to get my 3-year-old into school so I can find work.” She said she did not know anything about a time limit on staying in the hotel and had been given very little information about resources available to her and other newcomers.
But lack of information notwithstanding, advocates charge that the evictions are a blatant violation of the city’s Right to Shelter law, a policy that resulted from a 1981 lawsuit. The settlement initially protected only unhoused single men but was later extended to women and families; for more than 40 years, it has guaranteed a bed to anyone who needed one. The Legal Aid Society is currently suing the city, asking courts to overturn the time limits and allow people to remain in the shelters for as long as they need them.
City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams is one of the mayor’s harshest critics and an outspoken opponent of how newcomers are being treated. Speaking at a rally on the eve of the first wave of evictions, he told the crowd that “many asylum seekers are part of families that have traveled thousands of miles through treacherous conditions to get here. They are trying to do the best they can for themselves and their children. They are not breaking the law. The only people who are breaking the law are in the Adams’s administration” since they are keeping people from accessing Right to Shelter protections.
Williams also highlighted the possible impact of the evictions on families with school-aged children, since displacement is likely to disrupt their ability to learn. Even if school bus transportation is provided as mandated by federal law, traveling more than an hour between shelter and school can become untenable, Williams cautioned.
Trisha Arnold, special projects coordinator at the United Federation of Teachers, told Truthout that another obstacle is the lack of communication between the shelters and schools. “Sometimes families have cellphones and an internet connection, and sometimes not. Schools have worked hard to build trusting relationships with kids and their families, and it is upsetting to think about these kids suddenly having to enroll elsewhere because the commute between their new shelter and the school is simply too long.”
Even worse, she said, having families shuffle from one shelter to another will have a negative social, emotional and academic impact on the children. “It’s baffling that the city thinks this is a good idea,” she said. “Schools have given families contact cards with important phone numbers, and many schools have collected winter clothing and supplies to make the transition easier.” Nonetheless, she says that frustration levels are high for students, parents, teachers and advocates.
Murad Awawdeh, the executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC), shares Arnold’s exasperation.
“Even before the buses started coming from Texas, we met with the mayor and told him that there were three things the administration needed to do: expand free legal services for immigrants; codify the right to representation; and hire more case managers, social workers and lawyers to create a robust ecosystem for asylum seekers, people eligible for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and those being detained pending deportation proceedings,” he said. “We also told him that we need an emergency allocation of funds to aid school enrollment, provide classes for English language learners,” and create a bilingual teacher pipeline for schools that need instructors who speak Spanish, Kreyol, and other languages.
Lastly, Awawdeh said, NYIC has pushed back against the assertion that asylum seekers are bankrupting the city. “We told the administration that the city could save $3 billion immediately through housing vouchers,” he said. “Rather than giving privately owned hotels hundreds of dollars per person per night, vouchers would give people long-term stability for $50 to $72 a night.”
Inexplicably, Awadeh said, the city ignored this recommendation, instead imposing 30- and 60-day limits on placements and forcing people to repeatedly reapply for temporary housing assistance.
“Some of the city’s decisions do not make sense,” Awawdeh told Truthout. “Thankfully, people are stepping up. Youth organizations, housing groups, faith-based institutions and educators are showing leadership. It’s only the mayor of New York City who has failed.”
But while the majority of Awawdeh’s ire is directed at Mayor Adams, he is also critical of the Biden administration and Congress for their failure to invest in what NYIC says is a “consistent, sustainable model of humanitarian reception” that treats those seeking refuge “as people, not immigration enforcement priorities.”
He’s not alone. Vanessa Dojaquez-Torres, policy counsel at HIAS (originally the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), told Truthout that “the Republicans want fewer people coming across the border. They want Congress to bring back a Title 42 policy, allowing the government to put a cap on the number of people allowed into the U.S. and expelling everyone who tries to get in after that number is reached. They want expedited removals, hoping to deport people within two or three days of their arrival without giving them a chance to talk to a lawyer or see an immigration judge. These policies are meant to be a deterrent, but deterrence is not a motivator when people are fleeing for their lives.”
What is needed instead, Dojaquez-Torres said, is expedited work authorizations. Under the current system, work applications often take months to be processed, even for people with TPS, something that pushes people to rely on charity or work in the “underground” economy. “Only Congress can change the policies regarding work permits,” she said. “Right now, asylum seekers and refugees are in an impossible position. They want to work and live in dignity. The process needs to be reformed with them in mind. Basically, if lawmakers thought about how they’d want to be received, it might change the way incoming migrants are treated.”
Passage of the pending federal Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act, Senate Bill 255/House Resolution 1325, would be a step in the right direction, she said, since it would speed up the authorization process and eliminate costly renewal requirements that mandate a new application every two years.
Like her colleagues, Kelly Agnew-Barajas, co-director of the Immigrant and Refugee Services division of Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of New York, believes that it is possible to create a thoughtful system of relief for people in need. “There has to be multiyear planning and thinking,” she told Truthout. “We need to plan long term. The evictions are causing chaos and undermining the efforts of people who are trying to get their feet beneath them. If they get evicted from a Manhattan hotel and are relocated to Far Rockaway, Queens, for example, the law says that their kids can continue to attend the schools they’ve been going to since they arrived. But even if they’re in a supportive classroom in a supportive school and are making great social and academic progress, I am not sure they’ll want to be on a school bus for an hour or more twice a day. It seems as if the policy is designed to winnow the number of asylum seekers in the hope that they will go somewhere else.” Where that might be is anyone’s guess.
According to City Comptroller Brad Lander, the city’s current fiscal year budget is balanced through the end of June. Nonetheless, the mayor has already imposed a 15 percent cut on most city expenditures — closing public libraries on Sundays; ending composting in many neighborhoods; and cutting more than 2,000 jobs — something he blames on the high price tag of handling the “migrant crisis.” Meanwhile, local newscaster Errol Louis recently reported that police overtime went from $4 million in 2022, to $155 million in 2023.
Still, the buses from Texas keep coming. Since April 2022 Texas has sent more than 90,000 migrants to sanctuary cities across the country — with NYC getting the largest number. As of the end of December, NYC was sheltering 122,700 people, 68,300 of them asylum seekers.
Author Emma Lazarus referenced a similar group of newcomers in her poem “The New Colossus,” which is etched onto the base of the Statue of Liberty. Indeed, the people Adams’s lambastes are the “homeless tempest-tossed” of the 21st century.
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